Canada’s “Highway of Tears” flows between the cities of Prince George to Prince Rupert in British Columbia. But the gruesomeness that has given this 750-kilometer stretch of the Yellowhead Highway its unhappy monicker leads all the way to the desert in Juarez, Mexico.
December 6 marked Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, with the country’s aboriginal groups working to spotlight that an inordinate amount of that violence occurs against indigenous women in particular.
Such violence includes the disappearance and/or murder of 582 mostly aboriginal women over the past 20 or so years, half of them since 2000, according to statistics compiled by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). About 40 percent of the crimes remain unsolved, said the NWAC in “What Their Stories Tell Us,” a five-year study released last March.
The families of many of the women claim that the crimes were barely investigated.
The situation is similar in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. In this one-million-strong city just over the border from El Paso, Texas, women and girls disappeared and were murdered all through the 1990s and 2000s. The problem continues, though it is obscured by increased drug violence. In any event, few authorities appear to take the matter seriously. The mainly indigenous young women’s bodies have turned up mutilated in the desert in and around Ciudad Juarez. Many have not been identified.
Repeated outcries by various activist groups and victims’ families in both places have fallen on what appear to be the same deaf ears. Can Canada rise above this and truly tackle the problem?
“There are a disproportionately high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in Canada,” the NWAC report stated. There were 153 murders between 2000 and 2008, or about 10 percent of the total number of female homicides in Canada—an especially sobering statistic given that aboriginal women make up just three percent of the country’s total female population, the report noted.
Clearance rates differ by province, ranging from 42 percent in Alberta to 93 percent in Nunavut, the NWAC said. The majority of cases occurred in urban areas, with 70 percent of the women and girls disappearing from an urban area and 60 percent murdered in an urban area.
In addition to the murders, 115 women and girls are still missing, according to the report. Most of the disappearances and deaths occurred in the western provinces of Canada, with more than two thirds of the cases in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. More than half the women and girls were under age 31.
About the only thing that Mexico and Canada have in common is a border with the U.S. But when it comes to the response of officialdom to their mutual problem, the nations could be mirror images. In both countries, authorities often tell families who report a disappearance to wait and see if the woman comes home, explaining that she may have left on her own. But both sets of disappearances have sparked Amnesty International reports and drawn international censure.
“The women, most under the age of 30, are overwhelmingly victims of sexual violence,” wrote columnist Andre Picard in the Globe and Mail in September 2009. “They are being preyed upon systematically by sexual sadists, killers and probably more than one serial killer.”
“Sadly,” Picard continued, “when a native woman is murdered or vanishes under suspicious circumstances, it does not mobilize police action nor generate near as much media attention as similar cases involving non-native women. They were drunk. They were sex workers. They came from unstable family backgrounds. They were runaways. They were party girls. An endless litany of excuses for inaction is trotted out with shocking regularity.”
Such words are all but identical to those invoked by authorities about the murders and disappearances in Juarez. The main difference is that in Mexico, many local authorities barely understand the rule of law, let alone the concepts of forensics and chain of evidence.
There is a difference, too, between the majority of the murdered and disappeared Mexican women and their Canadian counterparts. The Mexicans were largely employees at local maquiladoras, or foreign assembly plants granted special tax and duty dispensation. Or they were students on their way to school. The Canadians, by contrast, largely had “difficult life circumstances,” as Picard put it.
“But it is precisely these circumstances—alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, the [compounded effects] of residential schools, poverty, survival sex, etc.—that placed them at much higher risk,” Picard wrote. “The murder of poor (literally and figuratively) aboriginal women is the most extreme manifestation of the price that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples are paying for the abysmal social conditions in which they are trapped.”
The abysmal social conditions of most of the Mexican victims are now exacerbated by an air of impunity stemming from recent unfettered drug violence. Thus, it is harder to generalize now about attacks on women in Juarez than when the problem first cropped up in 1993. And because of a lack of cohesive investigation at the outset, it appears that many of these crimes are destined to go unsolved.
Of course Canada is unlikely to fall apart from drug violence any time soon, and its investigative tactics have yielded more results than Mexico’s. Eventually a serial killer, Robert Pickton, was caught in some of the killings. But as Picard points out there is also evidence of a serial killer on the loose in Manitoba, as well as along the notorious Highway of Tears, where eight of nine murders and disappearances since 1990 have been of young aboriginal women.
Picard acknowledges that virtually all of Pickton's victims were sex workers. But what may be less known is that nearly all of them were also aboriginal.
“The reality is that the Highway of Tears stretches from sea-to-sea-to-sea in this country,” he wrote.
Various government agencies have finally begun to look into the matter. In October, Canada’s Ministry for the Status of Women announced that the government would spend $10 million over two years “to improve community safety and to ensure that the justice system and law enforcement agencies can better respond to cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.”
Measures include funding for culturally appropriate victims services through provinces and territories and funding for Aboriginal groups to help the families left behind, as well as the development of community safety plans for women in Aboriginal communities.
Provincial governments are also reaching out. In September 2009, Manitoba’s government created a task force comprised of the Royal Canadian Military Police (RCMP) and Winnipeg Police officials to investigate dozens of cases of missing and murdered women in the province.
In what activists call a too-little-too-late report, the Vancouver police did little more than rehash the investigations to date in 400 pages, much like a Mexican government report on the Juarez killings released in 2006. Although it discussed bias against sex trade workers, resource shortages might have impeded investigations, and other topics, the report was criticized by victims’ advocates for not going far enough, given that it focused on detailing what had happened rather than in moving forward.
Numerous activist groups have sprung up to bring attention to the murdered women of Juarez. They catalog the disappearances, the body count and the attempts to get the crimes solved. The same has happened in Canada, with groups such as the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN), Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), the Vancouver Rape and Relief Women’s Shelter, March4Justice and the Native Women’s Association of Canada working together to bring attention to the killings.
In addition, memorial marches to bring awareness and demand justice are periodically held across Canada in Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto, and Thunder Bay.
Proportionally speaking, the disappearance and/or death of 580 aboriginal women is akin to 18,000 missing and murdered non-Aboriginal women, Picard said, quoting Beverley Jacobs, NWAC's president at the time.
“Would we stand idly by while a massacre of our daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers unfolded on this scale?” Picard wrote. “We would not and we should not.”